The Ghost of a Green Los Angeles

**From the archives. This piece was originally published on on February 9th, 2010.**


Today, I took a long walk through the old neighborhoods of Long Beach: craftsman bungalows, Mission-style courtyard apartment buildings, quaint and walkable streets, old trees shading the sidewalks, the beach breeze blowing through. It put me in mind of the L.A. that might have been, the one that was proposed time and again, and overruled by boosters and developers and the politicians they owned.

L.A. might have been a paradise, of course, had it come up differently. Had it been a city of walkable neighborhoods, street cars, home solar, wild rivers, undeveloped beaches, gardens of water-sipping native plants (all proposed more than 100 years ago), it might have ended up the greenest major city on the planet, and a marvel of livability. Instead, of course, it's Gatsby's green light for all America.

Thinking about that, in turn, put me in mind of this passage from my unpublished 2002 America future book. It's an uncorrected piece, full of juvenile phrases and probably even some outright inaccuracies. Presented solely for your amusement:

It's hard to even find the Los Angeles River. It doesn't appear on my map, at all, and it takes some serious poking around on the Net to find a map that indicates in any detail its course. I reach it, not far from Downtown LA, by climbing through a weed-covered gap in a chainlink fence and crossing some litter-strewn, gravelly railroad yards.

I look, and behold the handiwork of the Army Corps of Engineers: huge slabs of concrete, with some murky water trickling between them. Remember the scene in Terminator 2, when the T-1000 has stolen a truck and is chasing a young, dirtbike-riding John Connor down a wide concrete tunnel with no roof? That's what rivers look like in LA. The Corps has never met a river they didn't think would look better in a little concrete.

If we'd stopped LA a 150 years ago, we find little reason to stay. LA in 1850 was a charming little way station amid the arid hills, the setting for a scenic little mission built by the Spaniards (with forced Indian labor), a scattering of prosperous farms, and a growing number of orange groves. Though prettier, LA didn't offer much more than, say, Bakersfield.

Except for the weather. LA's weather is perhaps the best in the world (a Georgian cabbie driving me home from a party I went to told me that the Crimean seafront's weather is much nicer, but I can only take his word for it): the days are nearly always sunny and warm, but the ocean breezes keep off the worst of the desert heat. It's nature's little climate-controlled wonderland, nearly year-round. It's easy to see why the orange groves and truck farms of this City of Angels got turned into one of the largest cities in the world in less than a century. The weather here isn't just good, it's hedonistic. It's a debauched sunshine. It's a slutty breeze.

Boosters in that ur-LA saw something you and I probably would not have seen: potential. They realized that to Easterners and Midwesterners used to muggy summers and winters where the snow fell deep and cold, LA would seem like Paradise on Earth, and that's marketable.

Market they did. By the turn of the century, these boosters had built a national folklore about Southern California, one that survives into the present day. In that folklore, people are always picking citrus fresh from the tree and swimming on pristine beaches, and eventually, driving around in convertibles and surfing with aspiring movie stars. It was, in many ways, the invention of a lifestyle, perhaps even of the concept of lifestyle. The invention of motion pictures only spread the myth wider and planted it deeper into our national subconscious. It's the Big Rock Candy Mountain, or as close to it as we can get in North America, and people flocked here to get their piece of it.

And when the flocks arrived, the boosters were ready to sell them real estate. As Mike Davis writes, "A picturesque conjugation of beach, desert, mountain and citrus grove – emblazoned on millions of postcards and orange-crate labels – once defined Los Angeles in the imagination of the entire world. Nature [was the basis for]… the greatest continuous real-estate boom in history."

LA, he explains, was marketed by real estate developers who hyped the very things their subdivisions were destroying, like pristine beaches, beautiful rivers and the world's largest citrus forest. Time after time, local civic activists, including the Olmstead brothers (best know today as the designers of New York's Central Park), would attempt to make the point that growth could be accommodated in ways which left this ocean-side paradise intact, and time and again their plans and pleas were ignored.

After the orange groves were surveyed, platted and bulldozed ("[G]reat glaciers of concrete and asphalt have scoured the valleys of the last traces of orchard and vineyard."), land-speculators turned their eyes toward the flood plains and river deltas. The problem was, rivers are unpredictable beasts, inclined to flood and twist around in their courses. This makes them biologically rich, but financially unsound real estate. A unseemly cabal of local politicians, bankers, developers, the Los Angeles Times and the Army Corp of Engineers emerged, determined to bring the beast to heel, by encasing the entire river in concrete if need be.

Their plan did not go without protest. The Olmstead brothers put forward a plan to preserve the river channels as nature preserves, parks and open space. Their plan was not embraced by the powers that be, and shortly later, as Davis says, LA solved its river problems by killing its rivers.

Then it went after other peoples' rivers, and grew a vast sprawl that slumps across its valleys today, while its residents brace for fires and mudslides, earthquakes and rising seas, and ultimately the day when, as everyone senses they will, the oil pipelines and aquaducts run dry. The LA we actually built is a blatantly temporary city, that (unless much changes) will leave behind it a sense mostly of loss.

Still, the other LA, the one we didn't build, floats through the real one, and some days, like today, you can see what it might have been.

Or is it still what may be? I was on a panel at the Copenhagen Climate Summit for Mayors with L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa in December, and he was pretty eloquent about the challenges and possibilities of retrofitting L.A. into a more bright green city. While the structural challenges remain massive (especially water supply and climate vulnerability), LA also has an ideal climate for clean energy, green building and smart transportation choices. A concerted push (in an improved economy) might actually be able to build on the strong bones of the old L.A. and recapture some of the potential the Olmsteads and others saw a century ago.

P.S.: If you want to think more about a green L.A., a good a place to start is with the writer Jenny Price and her essay, Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.

Image credit: The Photography Collection at the Los Angeles Public Library



Nice piece! Like this note: "Time after time, local civic activists, including the Olmstead brothers (best know today as the designers of New York's Central Park), would attempt to make the point that growth could be accommodated in ways which left this ocean-side paradise intact, and time and again their plans and pleas were ignored."

One of the reasons to recover technological history (obviously close to my heart) is that without it, you don't know the true breadth of choices that were available to the movers-and-shakers at the time. If you don't know the choices, you don't have a real record of decisinmaking; the form of infrastructure comes to seem natural ("people love their cars"), like the market (heh).

Pointing out the history as you do here also helps force into the open the kinds of outdated mental constructions that led to the physical constructions we still use today.

Posted by: Alexis Madrigal on 9 Feb 10

In seventeen (!) years of living in mostly in LA, I've started more and more to dream of it as it might have been, if it had grown up from a pueblo into a city a century earlier (without the automobile), or under Spanish/Mexican rule, or if they'd listened to the Olmsteads aggressively. After visiting Barcelona I could never see LA the same way again. It's much more tragic to see it as a paradise lost than as a disaster from the get-go. I hope we can reclaim it for the courtyards and pedestrian plazas someday!

Posted by: Zane Selvans on 9 Feb 10

I dont live in LA, but think that to make LA bright green or even just a bit brighter is to keep in mind principles like those that Jane Jacobs proposed as four qualities of healthy, vibrant cities: mixed uses, frequent streets, varied buildings, and concentration. For a street to thrive, Jacobs argued, there must be a mix of uses. “Intricate minglings of different uses in cities are not a form of chaos,” she wrote. “On the contrary, they represent a complex and highly developed form of order.”

this not only makes a city vibrant but that vibrancy glows green.

Posted by: Monique Hartl on 10 Feb 10

Revitalizing urban rivers really captures people's imaginations. Growing up in Montreal, we had a neighbour who could remember the days when a creek cut its way down the middle of our street. It had since been contained and paved over, but she knew that it was still there.

In terms of recapturing potential, as you put it, the rehabilitation of the Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul, South Korea is an amazing example.

Readers who don't know the project should check out this link The transition from river (1900s), to open sewer (1930s), to 12 lane expressway (1950s-70s), to river parkland(2003) is really something to see.

Posted by: Alex Aylett on 10 Feb 10

This type of discussion it's very interesting for the understanding of the transformation that leads to the actual state of degradation of the planet.
Like here in São Paulo, we have a lot of problems caused by the rapidly development of the city.
For example, here the low scholarship cause a massive disinformation of the population about the preservation o the planet, and we have problems with the sewers and trash been dumped into the rivers that pollutes them.
Another problem is the impermeability caused by the excess of concrete that causes floods when it rains. Lately we've had rain everyday for almost 50 consecutive days. Imagine the consequences that this kind of event brought to the life of the habitants of this city. We even have people that is living underwater since 8 of December of 2009. Thats almost two months of a continues flood.
Another point that is important to talk is the fact that the media an the local government blame the rain for the disaster. But this its not fair to blame the environment for this. We have to blame us for the consequences of our unplanned wrought. And like Alex Steffen's text, São Paulo could be a greener city, if the decisions we're to built the other project, that preserver the areas near the river for the plants and ecosystem. But the politicians chose to built the project that crated a inviable city. São Paulo.

Posted by: Andre Bender on 11 Feb 10

Hey Alex,

I'm a Sustainability Coordinator for the City of Long Beach. If you're interested in a personalized tour of Long Beach from a sustainability perspective while you are here for TED, let me know. [email protected]

Posted by: Larry Rich on 11 Feb 10

I live in LA and while there certainly number of ecological pitfalls and hardships that come with this city, I live with the dream of seeing LA amend at least some the errors of our predecessors.

There is a huge push right now from the communities around the rivers, especially near the Arroyo Seco and LA confluence, to find ways to
1) gain acces to these rivers, which are commonly refered to as "channels" in offical government documents!
2) restore and revitalize the rivers to a more natural state.

Part of the Arroyo Seco has already been naturalized in Pasadena and hopefully that greening will carry downstream in the form of a multi-use greenway and confluence park before heading to downtown LA.

There are dozens of people working on this one small area as I am sure there are in every other part of the city. The problem I keep seeing, however, is that the various organizations, citizen groups and public entities working on these projects can't seem to come to an agreement about what to do.

If any of us are going to see significant change in LA in our lifetime, there needs to be a lot more collaboration, flexibility and transparency from everyone involved.

Keep on keepin' on! We CAN make LA AWESOME!

Posted by: Sportal on 11 Feb 10

In 1971, my sweetheart and I moved to Long Beach and lived at George's Apartments. We had a Murphey bed and a "kitchenette". We experienced blue phosphoresence on the beach, which I will never forget. I thought it was paradise. I hope it still is.

Posted by: Katie Selph on 15 Feb 10

Los Angeles was an outstanding ecological city 70 years ago, and can be again. I wrote "Los Angeles: A History of the Future" in 1982.

Posted by: Paul Glover on 17 Mar 10